Critique | Bernadette Kiely, ‘A NEW LANDSCAPE – Cork or Venice, Who Cares, Who Can Tell’

Lavit Gallery, Cork; 23 March – 15 April

Bernadette Kiely, Cork or Venice (who cares, who can tell), 2022-23, oil on canvas, 186 x 204 cm photograph courtesy of the artist and Lavit Gallery. Bernadette Kiely, Cork or Venice (who cares, who can tell), 2022-23, oil on canvas, 186 x 204 cm photograph courtesy of the artist and Lavit Gallery.

Viewers of Bernadette Kiely’s paintings often presume they are acrylic on canvas. In fact, she paints in oil. Kiely is an oil painter who floods her surfaces with liquid, pouring white spirit so it pools on canvases laid on the floor. But she uses water too, spraying it directly onto oil compositions to which she has sometimes added charcoal, pastel, and chalk. If the surfaces of her paintings look watery it is because they go through a process of wetting, soaking, and drying; a series of actions that allow pigment to separate, suspend, move, and travel in ways that are frequently unpredictable – just like the water-sodden landscapes she paints. Gravity and evaporation play a part too, which means the manner of their making is neatly attuned to her subject matter. Her recent show at the Lavit Gallery in Cork featured paintings of rivers and floods. 

Kiely grew up next to the River Suir. Swimming, fishing, flooding, and the ever-changing, ever-present nature of water are integral to her sense of memory and place. In her studio next to her home in Thomastown, County Kilkenny, she paints the length of the River Nore that can be seen from her front door. But she also finds watery subject matter in her travels, and in images sourced online and elsewhere. Passing through the flooded midlands on a train, she took photographs of the Shannon-soaked fields through the windows. This series of images led to the canvases that opened this show: Crossing Over (Shannon River in Flood) i, ii, iii (2016). These paintings hang together as an effective triptych but can be bought separately. Kiely did not envisage them as a single work at the time. Hung like this, they present a reminder of their origin story, mimicking the series of train windows through which the flooded land was seen. Shimmering patches of green grass emerge from these pale, near-monochrome vistas which have a sepia feel. The land resembles swamp as much as floodplain, with intimations of human habitation in the rooftops and spire that share a horizon line with silhouettes of trees. The question Kiely is asking here, and everywhere in this exhibition, is a kind of what next? What about a time when the water does not recede after the flood? What then?  

The titles of her paintings sometimes reflect that overwhelming despair for which we have new words like eco-anxiety, global-dread, or solastalgia – a term coined by environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht in the early 2000s with a combination of solace, desolation and nostalgia at its root. Initially intended to describe a type of homesickness, felt while still at home because the changing environment no longer offers comfort or solace, it has been co-opted more broadly to indicate existential distress caused by climate change. Albrecht also coined the term terrafurie, to describe anger felt towards those whose actions contribute to environmental destruction. There is no terrafurie in Kiely’s work, but there is a form of solastalgia and with that comes a perhaps counter-intuitive feeling of love. 

Paintings entitled The colour of anxiety (flooded fields) (2016-17), A Hopeless Struggle with the Elements (2020), A Savage Flood – what use (is) geography now (2021), or the canvas that gives the show its title, might variously indicate despair, but this body of work is more about observation and feeling. It’s about noticing change and capturing it.

Kiely’s 2023 video work, The writing is on the wall, demonstrates the relentless power of a body of water in motion. She paints water where it shouldn’t be, as in No Parking (2022), in which the river has flung open and entered through a pedestrian gate. The metal uprights of the fence are an ineffectual grid through which water moves at will. The No Parking sign is absurdly redundant. In River Lee – (Cork) (2022-3) café chairs are stacked on a flooded street. A man stands, visible only from the neck down, up to his shins in water, hands in pockets, as shadowy figures move in hi-vis vests behind through the worryingly frequent but still for-now temporary inconvenience.

Two monotype pastel drawings made in 2013 and based on old maps, Liable to flooding – The Kings River i, ii, point to the ways in which water has always shaped our relationship with land and how we navigate. Inspired by images from Pakistan and Bangladesh, Kiely painted Save what you need (2017), in which a woman carries a goat as she wades through waist-high water. It’s a reminder that this is a whole-world problem, not just one visible from her own front door. The forms in her small canvas Sandbags (2023) look at first glance to resemble a figure, huddled in a doorway and wrapped in a sleeping bag. It’s another jolt to the consciousness; a reminder that these paintings are a slow seeping cry to open our eyes and to pay attention now.

Cristín Leach is an art critic, writer and broadcaster based in Cork.